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High Fructose corn syrup: Healthy or not?

Brian Bambl B.S. Exercise Science 2011-06-01

two stocks of corn stacked

High Fructose corn syrup which is similar in structure to sucrose (table sugar) has become an ingredient of criticism.  It is commonly found in sodas, energy drinks, cereal bars, and other snack foods.  High fructose corn syrup was first used in foods in the 1970’s.  It was introduced because it is lower in price than sucrose, but still offers a similar sweet taste like sucrose. 

So, what exactly is high fructose corn syrup?  As the name implies, high fructose corn syrup comes from corn starch.  Starches in general are just long chains of glucose; some chains are branched while others are just straight chains.  Corn starch is made up of the two starches Amylopectin and Amylose. 

These starches through a long process are extracted from corn.  Then using acids and enzymes the starches are broken down to produce glucose and fructose.  High fructose corn syrup contains a mixture of fructose and glucose in the ratio of about 55% fructose and 45% glucose.  However, this ratio can vary to some degree.  This is similar to the mixture found in sucrose which is a 50/50 mixture of glucose and fructose.

glucose, amylose, amylopectin

Fructose and glucose are simple sugars also known as monosaccharides that are found in honey, fruits, and vegetables.  The combination of a glucose and fructose molecule makes up table sugar (sucrose) that you see every day.  Glucose is actually your body’s “universal sugar”.  All the sugars that you eat must be converted to glucose by your liver prior to being broken down by your body for energy. 

simple sugars

Why does high fructose corn syrup have such bad reputation?

Since about 1980 there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Americans that are overweight.  So, some people have suspected that the increase in the number of overweight and obese individuals is related to the implementation of high fructose corn syrup in our foods.  However, this just isn’t true.  One gram of high fructose corn syrup contains the same amount of calories as table sugar and every other sugar that you eat (4 Calories per gram).   The difference is that table sugar is extracted from sugar cane, sugar beets, date palms, sorghum, and sugar maple versus corn and the high fructose corn syrup is generally higher in fructose.  If anything table sugar is better than high fructose corn syrup because fructose doesn’t cause as big of a blood sugar spike as glucose. 

The fact is that high fructose corn syrup isn’t as bad as many make it out to be.  The same rule applies to high fructose corn syrup that applies to all sugars and that is that you should eat them in moderation.  It is recommended that no more than 10% of your daily Calories come from sugar.  Sugar is by no means “poison” as many say it is.  Remember, it’s your body’s main fuel source!  However, your body doesn't need you to consume sugars in the form of simple sugars.  It's best for you to consume complex carbs which are long chains of simple sugars. High amounts of simple sugars in your diet can lead to dental caries (cavities), a lot of extra Calories, and provide no nutrient value.  When you consume simple sugars, bacteria in your mouth will digest some of these simple sugars and produce acids as byproducts of the sugar metabolism.  These acids then will eat away at your enamel. Something very helpful to do is brush your teeth immediately after eating sugary foods or drinks. Overall, limit your sugar intake and be wise.

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